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How & Why Do Leaves Change Color?

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Despite their astonishing record of losses when dealing with lumberjacks and beavers, trees are pretty tough customers. Their trunks, branches, roots and twigs are all more than capable of enduring a winter's worth of freezing temperatures, snow, sleet and hail. Their leaves, though? Eh, not so tough. The broad, thin leaves of a broadleaf tree (like a maple, an oak, a birch, or a poplar) are an Achilles' heel when winter comes, and are vulnerable to freezing and damage from the elements. In order to survive, the trees either have to somehow protect the delicate leaves or shed them.

Evergreen trees—your pines, spruces, firs, etc.— went the protection route. Their leaves, or needles, are covered in a waxy coating to resist freezing, allowing them to live for years or even decades before falling off and being replaced. The leaves of deciduous trees, on the other hand, are cast off with the arrival of winter. The chemical processes that prepare them for their send-off also treat us to the season's vibrant colors.

Color Coding

Green: The green color of leaves throughout spring and summer comes from chlorophyll, a pigment vital to photosynthesis.

As we get closer to autumn and some parts of the planet get fewer hours of sunlight, trees respond by stopping the food-making photosynthesis process and slowing the production of chlorophyll until, eventually, they stop producing it altogether and the green color of the leaf fades

leaves-mapleYellow and Orange: Along with chlorophyll, there are yellow and orange pigments, carotene and xanthophyll, inside some trees' leaves. For most of the year, these pigments are masked by chlorophyll, but as the chlorophyll breaks down and the green color dissipates, the yellow to orange colors become visible.

Red: Another class of pigment that occurs in leaves is the anthocyanins. Anthocyanins, unlike carotene and xanthophyll, are not present in leaves year-round. It isn't until the chlorophyll begins breaking down that the plant begins to synthesize anthocyanin. Why do trees begin producing a different pigment in leaves they're getting ready to lose? The prevailing theory is that anthocyanins protect leaves from sun damage, lower their freezing point, allow them to remain on the tree longer, and buy the tree more time to recover nutrients from its leaves. The colors that anthocyanins produce are dependent on the pH of the leaves' cell sap. Very acidic sap results in a bright red color, while less acidic sap leads to a purplish red.

Brown: The humdrum color is the result of waste products trapped in the leaves.

That covers the basics of how each of the colors can be produced. But which color we ultimately see depends on several factors, such as"¦

Species: Certain colors are characteristic of particular tree species and can be used to help identify the type of tree you're looking at. Oak leaves turn red, brown, or russet, hickories turn golden bronze, poplars turn golden yellow, dogwoods turn a purplish red, beeches turn a light yellow/tan, birches turn bright yellow, sugar maples turn orange-red, black maples turn a glowing yellow, and red maples turn scarlet. Some trees, notably elms, don't go through much color change at all; there's just a dull brown and then the leaf is gone with the wind.

Weather: The temperature and moisture levels a tree is exposed to before and during the time its leaves' chlorophyll breaks down can affect color. Sunny days and cool nights favor anthocyanin production and bright red leaves. On cloudy days, anthocyanin isn't as chemically active and allows the orange or yellow pigments to take center stage.

Geography: Autumn leaves in Europe tend to be mostly yellow, but the US and East Asia seem to favor red leaves. Scientists from Israel and Finland recently put forth a theory about this color difference in the journal New Phytologist1. The scientists think that some 35 million years ago—amid a series of ice ages—many tree species evolved to become deciduous and produced red leaves to ward off insects. In North America and Asia, north-to-south mountain chains enabled the north and south spread of plants and animals corresponding with the advance and retreat of ice. In Europe, east-to-west mountain ranges like the Alps trapped plant and animal life. Many tree species (and the insects that depended on them) died out when the ice advanced. At the end of repeated ice ages, say the scientists, the tree species that survived didn't need red leaves to cope with the insects that were left, so they stopped producing red pigments and stuck with yellow.

The Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

leaves-ground

While all this color changing and autumn magic is going on, the tree is preparing to cast off its leaves. Around the same time that chlorophyll production slows down, the veins that transport nutrients and water to the leaf from the rest of the tree get closed off. A layer of cells at the base of the leaf stem, called the separation layer, swells and forms a cork-like material, gradually severing the tissue that connects the leaf to the branch. The leaf falls off and the tree seals the cut—so when the leaf is blown off or falls from its own weight, a leaf scar is left behind.

1Lev-Yadun, S and Holopainen, J. (2009). Why red-dominated autumn leaves in America and yellow-dominated autumn leaves in Northern Europe? New Phytologist Volume 183(3): 506-512. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02904.x
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Special thanks to Damian Dockery, who provided the foliage photos. See more of his work at flickr.com/damiand23.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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